Jacqui Smith: My view of pornography

Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith on her personal experience of a dangerous industry

Eyeing my fellow passengers on the Tube heading for the Erotica show at Olympia last November, I wondered just what I was letting myself in for. BBC Radio 5 Live had asked me to make a documentary about the UK porn industry, so where better to start than its trade fair?

Two years ago, I became associated in the public mind with pornography when I mistakenly claimed parliamentary expenses for two pay-per-view porn films [watched by Smith's husband Richard] on a broadband bill.

It was just as wrong that the bill included a payment to watch the cartoon Surf's Up, but it was the porn that grabbed public and press attention. I realised how fascinated we are by porn – but that many of us know very little about it – how it's made, who watches it and how it affects us all.

This was the start of my journey to answer some of these questions. My view of porn has been that it is bad for the people who make it and for those who watch it – for men, women, relationships and broader society.

I didn't start with a completely open mind, but I was willing to have my views challenged.

One of those challenges had, of course, already come from my own experience. Someone I love and who I know loves me had used porn. We'd had some lively discussions over the years, but I couldn't really say that our relationship is the worse for his occasional viewing habits.

So what is the reality of porn in 2011?

The people in the Tube carriage looked like almost any group travelling on an early Saturday evening and I was surprised at how normal the Erotica show quickly seemed. Any of us who've visited a trade fair would recognise the stalls, the central display and show area – it's not until you look in more detail at the large chandelier made of blue glass penises, the man dressed as a baby or the Monkey Spanker stall that you really get the difference.

I took the opportunity to ask those I met what they think porn is. The legal definition is material produced solely or principally for the purpose of sexual arousal. Interestingly, many of the people I met at Erotica didn't want to describe what they watched or produced as porn. And many others I've talked to about this issue have tried to muddy the argument by pointing me to Lady Chatterley's Lover or ancient paintings of naked women. But I think it boils down to a pretty simple idea. Of course, there are "sex scenes" in other films or books, but these are part of a story that is a bit more than whether the pool will get cleaned or the parcels delivered. Art often includes naked scenes and even representation of lovemaking, but these are not primarily aimed at arousal.

Heterosexual pornography reduces relationships to sex and women to sexual receptacles. This was vividly demonstrated in the "Private Shop" area of the Erotica show, where shelf after shelf of DVD covers showed women as no more than their body parts.

But, as I challenged what I was seeing at the Erotica show and on the covers of DVDs I was, of course, challenged back about my lack of personal knowledge about pornography. I've seen magazines and books, but I had never watched a film.

So the next weird outing was to watch porn on a borrowed laptop. I already knew that porn was widespread on the internet, but I was genuinely surprised and shocked at how easily available it is: no proof of age, no credit card, no need to identify yourself. And, as I learned at the British Board of Film Classification, there is no classification, so no restriction on what you can view – group sex, double penetration, anal sex, scenes filmed to look as if strangers were being asked for sex in the street, some use of restraints – there seemed to be little limit on what was freely available.

As Home Secretary, I changed the law to criminalise the possession of violent and extreme pornographic images, but pornographers continue to push the boundaries. Even in the pornography submitted for classification by the BBFC, 25 per cent of films need to be cut – usually because they show women being forcibly restrained, abused or injured.

BBFC research also shows that one of the reasons for watching pornography is to get ideas for use in your own sexual activity.

Some people will call me naive, but I'm sure there are lots of parents who don't grasp or try not to think about the reality of what is being pumped into their children's laptops and phones.

Having seen the product, I wanted to meet those who make it in this country. What brings people into the industry? What's it like to be a porn star? Are they being exploited or putting themselves at risk? What are the differences between UK porn and others?

The UK industry fills a particular niche internationally. Less "glamorous" and plastic than the US, less scatological than Germany and less fetishistic than other European and Asian porn.

It was described to me as "fish and chips" porn by Phil Barry at Pumpkin Films – one of the UK's largest porn producers. Liselle Bailey, who is a producer of porn and head of scheduling for Television X agrees that it is the realism in UK porn which is its major selling point.

I can't see a UK trade delegation extolling the virtues of our good, wholesome, everyday porn industry any day soon, but it was an interesting example of national stereotypes in action. I met experienced male and female porn stars and young women starting out in the industry. I visited the UK's largest porn production studios, where even the staff kitchen was put to use as a set. I didn't expect to find much in common with those who make and act in porn films, but they were surprisingly honest and friendly.

Being a porn star hadn't been their lifelong ambition, but they were happy with the money they could earn and with the way they were treated. They were proud to have received awards (porn Oscars?!); they cared about each other's well-being and, despite not wearing condoms, were very careful about their sexual health. There has never been an incidence of HIV infection in the UK heterosexual porn industry, although there have been cases reported in the UK gay porn industry as well as in the US.

So does porn exploit those involved? For those hundreds of young men who apply to be porn actors, it's not what you think it's going to be. It's not at all glamorous – you have to perform on cue and some men inject their penises to achieve erections. There is a gender pay gap – refreshingly, women earn more than men. Despite this, women rarely stay in the industry for more than a few years. It's pretty difficult to hold down a relationship whilst you're having sex with someone else in your day job. It's not the most enlightened workplace and you can be putting your health at risk.

But despite these problems, I've changed my view on those who work in the mainstream industry. I'm pretty sure that there are plenty of people who make an informed decision to work in the porn industry – they make a choice to stay, based on the money they can earn and some even enjoy it. Of course I understand that I was talking to those at the most "legitimate" end of the industry. I know from experience that there are many other women in the broader sex industry who are far from willing participants. So, does porn damage those who watch it? People use porn because it's enjoyable. Couples sometimes use it together. Men aren't turned into monsters by watching a bit of pay TV!

However, in the documentary, both philosopher Alain de Botton and relationship counsellor Simone Bienne make the important point that it is precisely because porn is so physically pleasurable that it can lead to addiction and a blurring of reality and fantasy. Pornography could be likened to gambling or alcohol or even shopping. A small amount can be fun and probably not too damaging. But the easy availability of porn for people who might already have other problems in their lives can lead to addiction, damaged relationships, distorted views of sex and dangerous attitudes towards women.

In the programme, a woman talks about the destruction of her eight-year marriage through her husband's obsession with pornography. Sex had disappeared from their relationship even before they were married, as her husband spent his time watching porn films rather than with her.

Because porn is now so easy to get hold of, it is much more likely to become an addiction and to distort relationships. Porn is a spectator sport and a fantasy – not the reality of a long-term, equal and loving relationship. In the porn world, having sex over the age of 40 counts as a fetish!

Porn isn't sex education. But there are young people today growing up with the idea that it is. This is changing the way young people think about each other and what they expect to have to do in their sex lives. Even those who make the porn don't want it to be accessible to young people, but the truth is, that it is – and increasingly will be.

And what about the wider impact? The vast majority of porn portrays women as nothing more than sex objects. The young women I talked to in the industry defended their roles, but wanted a lot more for their daughters. Despite the claims of realism in the UK porn industry, the stories never show women really liberated or powerful.

As I pointed out to the porn director who showed me a film set based in a hospital ward, why are there never any women consultants or senior administrators in the hospital scenarios?

"I suppose we could have them coming to check up on the sperm bank!" he responded.

While some women are taking a more active role and changing the sort of porn that was being made, porn will always tend to reduce women to the role of servicing men's needs.

And even if you never watch porn, you and your children will still be affected by it – the "I'm a Porn Star" T-shirts and Playboy pencil cases are the multi-million-pound porn industry seeping out into our everyday lives.

Many politicians (me included) have been happy to raise concerns about the sexualisation of children, but none have linked that process back to the porn industry. A global industry whose profits are threatened by the internet will inevitably find other ways to make money – that means "adult industry" products and attitudes coming increasingly onto our high streets and into mainstream entertainment.

I was surprised at how much I liked those on the front line of porn that I met on this journey. But even they worry about the effect of unlimited, unregulated porn on the internet.

Phil Barry told me that he didn't want his own adult children to watch it. Obviously his commercial interests are under attack from free access on the net, but I also felt that he was genuinely concerned about the extent to which young people were now able to watch the "adult" material that his firm produced. What's on your laptop today, could be on your large screen TV tomorrow – and, who knows, in 3D soon. This is a very long way from passing a video around or keeping a magazine under the mattress.

Events meant that I was forced to talk about porn – and not just with Richard at home. We all now need an honest conversation about the impact of porn on our families and our society.

The internet has changed the nature and availability of porn. I spoke to the Culture Minister Ed Vaisey, who recognises the issue and has brought together internet service providers to consider what action they could take.

I favour an approach which means you have to positively opt in to have porn coming into your home. I'm pleased that Government ministers are taking this seriously, but I wonder how long we can wait for voluntary action from internet service providers. The current regulatory framework covers DVDs and pay-per-view TV. It doesn't work in an era of free internet and smartphones.

And, finally, to the multi-million pound industry built on making and distributing porn. That includes not just the pornographers themselves, but the TV channels, the hotels and the phone companies who make money from showing porn.

The drinks industry set up and funds the Portman Group to promote responsible alcohol marketing and sensible drinking.

There's a real opportunity for some social responsibility from the porn industry. Why not fund some real sex education in our schools, promote some safe sex messages and invest in relationship counselling for those who really can't tell the fantasy from reality?

Who wants to take the lead?

"Porn Again" is on Radio 5 Live on Thursday at 9.30pm

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